Wine grape growers in the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area expect 2020’s harvest to age well, providing what they predict will be a lasting sweet note to a year marked by uncertainty.
The wines from this year’s grapes are still in their early stages. But proprietors of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Rivaura Estate Vineyards & Winery at Arrow and Basalt Cellars in Clarkston say what they’re observing so far is promising.
“The chemistry and the flavors (are) incredible,” said Coco Umiker, an owner and winemaker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars. “It was just balanced all year long. The winemaking was almost effortless. There weren’t all these curveballs being thrown at me.”
Lane Hewett, assistant winemaker at Rivaura, Mike Pearson, an owner and vineyard manager of Colter’s Creek, and Rick Wasem, an owner and the winemaker at Basalt Cellars had a similar take.
“It was a big, plentiful harvest,” Hewett said. “We’re really excited about everything.”
The berry size was a little smaller than in some years at Colter’s Creek, creating a higher ratio of grape skins to juice, something that could increase the intensity of the flavors and colors of wines from 2020 grapes, Pearson said.
“It was a very good year fruit-wise, better than some of the years we’ve had,” he said. “From what we’re seeing and tasting right now, we think it’s going to stand out as an exceptional year.”
Sometimes the acidity in grapes is too high or too low, which winemakers can adjust with varying degrees of success, depending on what else is happening with the grapes, Wasem said.
This year, he didn’t have to do much of that tinkering, which is the approach he prefers.
“The size (of the crop) was average to slightly on the light side, but that ended up translating to better quality,” Wasem said. “You didn’t have to do anything to the fruit when it came in except ferment it.”
The potential the 2020 vintage holds comes as a relief for winery owners, who earlier in the season harbored what turned out to be unfounded worries about smoke taint in grapes from north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.
A tiny amount of smoke flavor in a full-bodied wine can be interesting and is somewhat similar to what winemakers do when they age wines in oak barrels, but too much can easily ruin wines, Umiker said.
One of the challenges with smoke taint, Wasem said, is that it surfaces during fermentation, frequently in grapes that look healthy and taste right at harvest.
Umiker was so worried about smoke taint, she did at least two small-batch test fermentations on every block of grapes Clearwater Canyon Cellars grew before she was satisfied her grapes were unharmed.
Once Umiker and other winemakers realized smoke damage wasn’t a factor, they focused on the strengths of this year’s grapes.
The syrah grapes from vines Clearwater Canyon Cellars planted in 2006 are among the best of this year’s harvest, Umiker said.
They have “perfect” chemistry and are “hugely explosive with flavor,” she said. “Winemaking is pretty darn easy when the vintage is that perfect.”
Other winemakers are equally as pleased.
Like Umiker, Hewett, believes syrah will be a standout. The red grapes are among the varieties his vineyard grows on the north and south sides of the Clearwater River.
In the 2020 vintage, they expect to see a continuation of a trend that surfaced in other years. Wines made from the same type of grape raised across the river from each other can be distinct, Hewett said, because of factors such as soil composition and sun exposure.
“It’s really cool to taste them side by side and see how different they are,” he said.